Controversial efforts to build a Walmart in Midtown Miami hit an unexpected roadblock Wednesday when members of Miami’s architectural advisory panel rejected the latest version of the plan.
The unanimous vote to deny a permit application was unusual for the Urban Development Review Board, which functions as an advisory group to the city planning director, and rarely takes a hard stand against projects.
The response from Walmart was unusual, too.
The board offered Walmart a chance to rework its plans and return for a later hearing. But the Walmart team declined.
“We’re just at a point where the project is taking way too long,” Walmart attorney Alfredo Gonzalez said, adding that contractual obligations demand the project move forward immediately.
The Midtown Walmart project has garnered intense opposition from neighborhood activists, who worry the big-box store will destroy the character of the up-and-coming neighborhood. Proponents say the Walmart would create as many as 750 construction and retail jobs and be a source of fresh produce and affordable consumer goods.
Last month, to make its 156,000-square-foot store blend in better with the district, Walmart revised its plan to include an adjacent building with pedestrian-friendly, street-level shops. Zyscovich Architects, the firm that drew up the master plan for the Midtown district, is designing that portion of the project.
On Wednesday, members of the development review board sharply questioned whether the latest plans comply with two key features of the special zoning plan that governs development in Midtown. Like the city’s Miami 21 zoning code, which was written after the development of Midtown, the rules are meant to ensure that buildings in the district foster active pedestrian traffic and avoid blank walls and exposed parking garages.
One guideline calls for the top decks of parking garages to be screened or covered. Walmart’s plan for rooftop parking includes decorative planters but not a cover or screen.
“The code requires that you incorporate trellises or other design features to conceal the parking spaces,” Urban Development Review Board member Robert Behar said. The Walmart plan “needs to be more elaborate.”
A second rule requires “liners” — typically residential or commercial space — to conceal garages on principal streets like Midtown Boulevard and North Miami Avenue. If a garage doesn’t have liners above the ground floor, it’s supposed to be set back 85 feet from the street.
While Walmart’s plans show ground-floor retail stores, there are none on the second and third stories of the three-level garage. Those floors are instead covered with glass façades.
The garages are set back roughly 25 feet on Midtown Boulevard and 50 feet on North Miami Avenue.
Miami Assistant Planning Director Carmen Sanchez said she believes the Midtown regulations don’t specifically require occupied spaces in the upper stories, but just “an articulated building façade” like the glass panels Walmart has proposed.
But members of the panel said they read the code differently to require habitable space on the upper stories as well as the ground floors of garages.
“Either you include liner uses in the second or third level, or you set the building back 85 feet,” architect and developer Willy Bermello said.
Bermello slammed Walmart for repeatedly trying to “get away with” less than required in the Midtown code.
“I feel like a violin and I’m being played,” Bermello said.
Walmart officials rejected those claims. Sanchez denied any implications that the city planning department had bent the rules to favor the Walmart proposal.
“At no time, sir, does the planning department make a preference from one project to another, or push one [project] through over another,” Sanchez said. “We simply apply the rules based on the project’s merits.”
Sanchez said her department had already given careful consideration to the proposed plan.
“It is a work in progress and we would still like to see some additional refinements,” she said. “But for the most part, we’re comfortable with what they have presented.”
Because Walmart is not seeking any exceptions from the Midtown zoning rules, the application will not be reviewed in a public hearing or by the City Commission. The final decision rests with planning Director Francisco Garcia unless an appeal is filed. That appeal would be heard by the ccity planning board and finally the City Commission.
In a prepared statement, Walmart spokesman Steven Restivo called Wednesday’s meeting “a procedural step in the city’s approval process,” and said that the company values public input.
“We will continue working with the city and community to deliver a store that reflects the look and feel of Midtown Miami while providing new job opportunities and shopping options to our Miami customers,” he wrote.
But Grant Stern, a community activist who has fought against the Walmart proposal, said Walmart has hardly been cooperating.
“This is a flawed project that does not meet the Midtown Miami guidelines whatsoever,” Stern said after the meeting. “It would be a disaster.”